Is Lupus Deadly?

Today, most people with lupus have a normal life expectancy

Woman suffering from shoulder pain

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Lupus is generally not deadly. Thanks to advancements in medicine, 80% to 90% of those with this disease—also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)—can expect to live an average life span with proper treatment and follow-up care.

Learn why the life expectancy of those with lupus is what it is today, how lupus affects the body and when it can be deadly, and how symptoms can be managed so you can have the best quality of life.

How Long Can You Live With Lupus?

Lupus was once much more deadly than it is today. Only 50% of people diagnosed with lupus in 1955 were expected to live for more than four years.

Now, more than 90% of people with lupus survive 10 years or more, with many achieving a normal lifespan.

Even a diagnosis of severe lupus does not necessarily mean an early death. A study published in 2009 found the life expectancy of women with lupus nephritis has improved so much that it now approaches that of the general population.

Why Lupus Can Be Serious

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disorder. In people who have lupus, the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues, which causes pain, swelling and organ damage, among other symptoms.

Lupus can damage many parts of the body, including the:

  • Joints
  • Skin
  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Blood vessels
  • Brain

When Lupus Is Deadly: Factors Affecting Lifespan

Again, lupus is not considered the deadly disease that it once was. But that does not mean that it can not be fatal.

Kidney failure used to be the most common cause of lupus mortality. Today, when lupus shortens someone’s lifespan, it is most often attributed to long-term complications of the disease, especially:

  • Infection
  • Kidney failure
  • Cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack and stroke)

Evidence suggests that active disease causes about a third of lupus deaths, while complications of the disease or its treatment (especially corticosteroids and immunosuppressants) cause about two-thirds of lupus deaths.

Lupus complications are increasingly related to aggressive treatments. These treatments can extend a patient's life considerably, but their side effects may eventually take a health toll.

The severity of your lupus factors into your life expectancy. It's been shown that people with more severe lupus tend to have shorter lifespans. This is probably because patients with severe disease have more disease complications and get more aggressive treatment.

Managing Lupus

Managing lupus is key the living a normal lifespan. Some medicines used to treat and manage lupus symptoms include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications can help reduce pain and swelling in joints and muscles.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids, namely prednisone, can reduce swelling and pain and calm the immune system.
  • Antimalarial drugs: Studies found that taking antimalarial drugs, which are used to treat malaria, can stop lupus flares. These drugs can treat joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue, and lung inflammation.
  • BLyS-specific inhibitors: These drugs limit abnormal immune cells found in those with lupus, which can reduce symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy/immunosuppressants: For severe cases of lupus that especially affect major organs, these medicines may be used to suppress the immune system.

Other ways to manage lupus symptoms include:

  • Making regular visits to your healthcare provider
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Limiting your exposure to the sun

Lupus Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does a person get lupus?

    While the exact cause of lupus is unknown, scientists believe that environmental factors, genetics, medications, infections, and stress play roles in causing the condition.

  • Is lupus ever cured?

    There is currently no cure for lupus, but the disease is typically managed successfully with treatment.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lupus Foundation of America. Prognosis and life expectancy.

  2. Mak A, Cheung MW, Chiew HJ, Liu Y, Ho RC. Global trend of survival and damage of systemic lupus erythematosus: meta-analysis and meta-regression of observational studies from the 1950s to 2000s. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2012;41(6):830-9. doi:10.1016/j.semarthrit.2011.11.002

  3. Stratta P, Mesiano P, Campo A, Grill A, Ferrero S, Santi S, Besso L, Mazzucco G, Rosso S, Spitale A, Fop F, Ciccone G. Life expectancy of women with lupus nephritis now approaches that of the general population. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2009 Oct-Dec;22(4):1135-41. doi:10.1177/039463200902200432

  4. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. What is systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)? Updated June 2019.

  5. Ocampo-piraquive V, Nieto-aristizábal I, Cañas CA, Tobón GJ. Mortality in systemic lupus erythematosus: Causes, predictors and interventions. Expert Rev Clin Immunol. 2018;14(12):1043-1053. doi:10.1080/1744666X.2018.1538789

  6. Maidhof W, Hilas O. Lupus: an overview of the disease and management options. P T. 2012;37(4):240-9.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing and treating lupus.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Managing lupus.

  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lupus risk factors.

Additional Reading

By Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH
Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH, is a medical writer and program development manager at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities.